Breaking Social Norms
Story by Taylor Strickland • Photo by Joshua Jacobs
Retiree Launches County’s First Literacy Program
Retiree Launches County’s First Literacy Program
“I had someone tell me once that I was being used in a divine way,” shares Barbara Woodson, former Deputy Regional Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration of Region IX in San Francisco and Founder of the Marion Literacy Council. “I’m not even religious, but I believe it.”
In 1998, Barbara exchanged her beloved San Francisco for what she thought would be peaceful retirement in Ocala, Florida. “I found out I was very bad at golf very quickly,” she laughs. “I was only 56 years old, so I thought I would volunteer. I had always wanted to teach someone how to read. I was interested in it back in San Francisco, and I soon found out that there was nothing here in Marion County.” Nevertheless, Barbara was determined to help.
“It occurred to me that I didn’t know how to teach someone to read, so I got on the internet and found out that Leon County had a literacy project,” Barbara recalls. “They steered me toward Orlando, which, at the time, had a big program.
“They used a system called Laubach,” Barbara says. “It’s a beautiful system, because it’s based on all the senses: the eyes, the ears, tactile.
“I was learning the system and thought it was simple. It occurred to me that I could teach other people how to do this. I thought, with all those retired people, there were probably a lot of them that were pretty bad at golf, too, and maybe they would want to help me.”
When Barbara returned from her training in Orlando, she immediately set about recruiting others in her local community of Oak Run. “Pretty soon, we had 50 people.”
However, the next hurdle was the most important. Barbara had no students and was uncertain how to find them. “I didn’t need to wait very long, because apparently, I’ve got a big mouth,” she says, only a little abashed. “I was a pest all over–Ed Dean, the hospital, the mayor’s office, anybody who would listen.”
Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the project as Barbara’s neighbors. “Kind of the attitude I got was, ‘This little old lady who moved here from California thinks we’re stupid, and she’s going to educate us,’” Barbara mocks. “It took a long time to convince people that I wasn’t in this for something, but it’s a beautiful cause.”
Not to be deterred, Barbara pushed forward. She knew there was need for a literacy program. “It’s easier to go to jail than to go to school. It’s an industry, and in the South, it’s intergenerational,” she says. “We have a huge literacy problem.
“Word got out to the social workers. I got a cold-call one day from a social worker, and she says, ‘I got somebody that needs to know how to read.’ That was out in Belleview, and Eddie was my first student,” Barbara states proudly. “We did our first lesson of Laubach and then I said, ‘Okay, Eddie, read it to me,’ and he did. I said, ‘Holy crap! This thing works! I can teach someone to read.’ That lit a fire in me.”
Barbara ascribes the Literacy Council’s success to the influence of many quiet, unsung heroes. “I didn’t do this alone, you know,” she asserts.
Kevin Christian, current spokesman for the school district and former NBC affiliate reporter for Marion County, was one of many such charitable figures. “Kevin was there, one day, doing an interview with the principal, and I grabbed him.” Though hesitant at first, Kevin was amazed at the elderly Jerome’s progress. Rather than air his intended story on NBC that night, he did a feature on the Literacy Council instead.
“That was huge!” Barbara exclaims. “People began to really believe we existed. We were real.”
From a small project of determined retirees, Wednesday nights at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, to a room in Howard Middle School, to a closet in the old Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Ocala, the Literacy Council slowly came to fruition through the labor and kindness of others. “This has been such a blessing to me. I don’t think I did it alone, so it makes me uncomfortable being praised. I would have quit if I could–I tried.
“So many times, I thought, ‘Well, this is the end. I can’t go on.’ I was teaching students, evaluating the students, training the tutors, ordering the books, putting together bookcases, writing stories in the newspaper for free to get publicity, losing money, and my husband was sick. My husband was dying,” explains Barbara, referring to her late husband Lyle. “He was a big help to me. He did an awful lot. He was always my biggest cheerleader.”
When asked what kept bringing her back, Barbara’s response is simple. “The phone would ring, and how do you tell someone no? How do you say no when they come to you and want a better job, a better life? You can’t.” She shakes head. “What an honor to be used like this. Truly divine.”
Barbara has since retired from her leadership duties at the Literacy Council, but is still open to volunteering should her services be needed. Most of her time is now spent going on grand adventures with her senior dog. “Terminal,” Barbara says fondly, gesturing to her furry companion. “But we’re still going!”